You often hear the phrase “DJ’s DJ” but you might call Kevin McHugh AKA Ambivalent a "producer’s producer". With 10 years behind him as a producer, DJ and boss of two labels (Delft and Valence) Kevin has built up a level of professionalism in the studio in a landscape dominated by bedroom producers and quick fix culture. Just check his in depth look at the loudness wars over at Attack Mag for an example of his depth of knowledge. So for the next in our Creative Technology? series we felt Ambivalent was the perfect person to pick apart not just how he uses his gear, but what his emotional attachment is to his studio and how it influences the music he creates.
What is your relationship with your studio? Do you have an emotional attachment to the gear and the space or is it just a tool to allow you to express your ideas?
I definitely have an emotional attachment to the gear and everything about the setup. I’ve experienced some great high moments of my life in there and some deep lows of course, too. But it functions beyond a creative space, it’s somewhere between a therapy couch and a gym. I work out my anxieties, my elation, my fears, etc by being in there. Sometimes just sitting there in silence is helpful.
It’s well documented that you have a huge passion and lust for gear. Does this extend into the rest of your life?
I’m really engaged, or I’m totally useless. If I have a passionate response to something, I can manifest abilities that I simply don’t have anywhere else. I can’t find my keys or remember my phone number half the time, but I can tell you exactly where my Purpose Maker records are in a stack of thousands and the right settings on my 909 without even looking. My studio is quite chaotic and messy to most people, but it makes perfect sense to me, and I know it by heart so that I never have to look at something, I just turn on and get going.
Do you have any pieces of kit that you have a particularly love/hate relationship with?
My 303 is the definition of a dysfunctional codependency. It will never cooperate with what I want to do, but always gives me better than I deserve. It loses patterns I hold dearly, but always surprises me with beauty and cosmic wisdom. When I am away from it, I daydream about reconnecting and finding a new level of our twisted relationship. It has changed my life.
You release under a number of different aliases - do you have different sets of gear that you turn to for each project?
I don’t really set limits for Ambivalent stuff, it just comes down to a feeling. With LA-4A, yeah it’s definitely limited to hardware, but it’s even more about a process. Sometimes there are certain scales or chords that I’ll only use with LA-4A, because it’s also about a mood, but even that I try not to box it in too much.
Do people revere and mythologise “classic” gear too much or are they rightly appreciating the amazing machinery that allows us to produce this music that we all love?
To me, it has a huge relationship to the basis of this music. It’s not that Roland gear is superior in some sense, but it is the gear that was used to make the foundational moments in this music, so it’s always going to give that pure sense of those foundations. The comparison would be certain guitars or amps in rock and roll - they define a sound from a moment that started everything. I don’t think old school is the only school, and I love a lot of really contemporary stuff, regardless of what the production process is. Most people who are fascinated with older methods of music making are people who want to tap into the music that originally inspired them.
Has the purchase of a piece of gear ever changed your sound or creative viewpoint dramatically just by itself?
It always has that potential, and really often does. A great piece of gear is really versatile, and even more importantly, a curious producer who is really engaged can get a million different results out of a piece of gear. What often gets overlooked is that it’s an instrument, and while no two violinists will play the same, then no two people using an 808 will get the same results, and should never repeat themselves.
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